Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
The Dominion of Canada is one massive cesspool of alternately creepy and majestic wilderness. In one isolated corner of the colonies, evil permeates the very soil upon which the foundations of Canada are built.
It is in this seemingly innocuous burgh where we find an all-night disc jockey trapped in an isolated, rural radio station while a virus rages outdoors, sending its victims into states of madness, violence and almost superhuman strength.
Not too far away is the nefarious local factory, providing most of the community’s livelihood, but spilling its foul industrial waste into its faulty septic system, which unloads into the watershed, whereupon a brave septic man plunges into the bowels of the system and gradually turns into a hideously deformed monster, half man, half shit.
There is, of course, a multitude of decrepit graveyards in the burgh, and one unlucky crypt keeper becomes an unlikely hero against a network of evil that leads to the very maw of Hell.
And then, there are the alien visitations.
Pontypool is available on DVD (Region 1 or 2), released in 2010.
These four respective tales of horror, Pontypool, Septic Man, Hellmouth and Ejecta, all spring from the diseased brain of one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists and screenwriters. The first film was directed by Canada’s King of Rock ‘n’ Road movies, Bruce (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) McDonald. The three other films were spawned by Foresight Features, an independent south-western Ontario production company headed by Jesse T. Cook, John Geddes and Matthew Wiele, three 30-year-old gents who love horror movies as much, if not more, than life itself.
They have an unholy alliance as filmmakers with the aforementioned author.
Tony Burgess lives in Stayner, Ontario. It’s just to the south of where the mighty Bruce Peninsula begins. Yes, The Bruce is the very pioneer territory I do my writing from. Stayner itself is situated quite conveniently next door to Collingwood, Ontario, home and production headquarters of Foresight Features.
Mr Burgess has agreed to a few pulls from a jug of local shine and to chat with me about the science-fiction horror thriller Ejecta.
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Greg Klymkiw: One of the many reasons Ejecta resonates with me, especially in terms of the writing – character, dialogue in particular – is that it comes from a place that FEELS legit. Sure, everyone is fascinated with the notion of other worlds, aliens, etc… God knows, even as a kid, the 50s-60s science fiction I watched and/or read fuelled me, as did the nutcase Erich von Daniken. But during the past 15 years or so, I became hooked on the Art Bell/George Noory ‘Coast-to-Coast A.M.’ radio program, and via that unhealthy obsession, I became quite an avid reader of the Graham Hancock books, especially his Fingerprints of the Gods and The Mars Mystery tomes about pyramids on Mars and how humans come from Martians. And, Jesus, I’ve even read a whack of stuff from Zecharia Sitchin, that nutcase who’s written a zillion books about ancient races of aliens on Earth who seeded all of humanity with their interplanetary love juices. I’ve even read scholarly works like Life beyond Earth: The Search for Habitable Worlds in the Universe by Athena Coustenis and Therese Encrenaz who are astro-biologists. Like, really, I love there’s actually a legit scientific field dealing with extraterrestrial life. And, of course, I’m crazy about the beautifully written books by physicist Michio Kaku, who makes my worst subject in high school completely understandable, albeit 35 years after the fact. In book after book Kaku links physics to stuff like parallel universe theory, the shitload of dimensions that exist but that we can’t even begin to comprehend, and all sorts of other neat factoids pointing to life outside of our own measly planet. So given all that, Ejecta feels very real and, as such, is really fucking scary.
Tony Burgess: Well, generally I’d say that working in genre film and novels, the first fascination on any given project is always some conceptual novelty… but once you start batting away at it, you realise that it all has to be happening to someone in a way you/they are compelled to believe in. And that can be done no matter how stretched the reality is. I call it the toilet rule: is it is more riveting to be invisible in a bathroom watching someone wash their face than it is to listen to the Mercury Theatre radio play of War of the Worlds? So everything I do has to have a scene like that – where you’re with someone and nothing is happening – and if it’s not mesmerising somehow, then nothing is. For example, an owl in the attic that frightens a babysitter for two hours can work. So can time-travelling Sasquatch robots. Just hang out in the bathroom for a while to see if you’re getting the job done.
What fuelled your need to write Ejecta?
Well, in this case many of the story elements were brought to me. Initially co-director Matt Wiele approached me with an eye to making a found-footage alien feature. We then did what’s become a ritual between me and Foresight Features. We met at dawn, hammered a few pots of coffee back and then drove a few story pylons into the ground. Around 4pm or so, when were fairly sure we could trust ’em to be sturdy, we pulled out the whiskey – we affectionately called it ‘pull’ – and then we drank our way through the finer points of the story until the wee hours. It’s an excellent way of building a stable structure, then decorating it madly.
Gotta love those frilly dollops of icing on the cake, eh? Those delectables you leave for last.
Ah, but alas, as Alex in A Clockwork Orange says, ‘we then got to the long and weepy part of our story’. We realized once we put everything that I’d written into the can, not enough footage had been shot. We didn’t have anything resembling a feature length. So we had meetings, fights, meetings, fights, pull, meetings, fights, suicide watch, pull, more meetings, more fights, more pull etc., until we came up with the wrap-around story.
Uh, the rest of the movie, eh?
It ended up being a hell of a ride. And you know, the film is very close to my heart.
What I wanted was to dramatically explore the idea of aliens meeting inside a human mind, that the brain of an individual is really just another room in a building for them. I also liked the feel of a single night in a single place that starts to feel broken up, and perilous. There was a trick I was trying too, which became necessary in part because it’s a film swallowed by a film, and that is the notion of NOW not EVER being verifiable. The timeline is sort of like a Moebius comic… ending on the moment it started, but if you parse its linearity it has to be ending LATER.
Why do YOU think the aliens like the room of William Cassidy’s mind? I like that they DO like it, but I must admit that while watching the movie, I also like that I’m not always sure WHY they like it. It’s only in retrospect that I can figure out why, or at least, figure out ‘why’ in terms of the things you’ve provided in the script with respect to his character. Still, this inquiring mind needs to know. Why do YOU think the aliens like his ‘room’?
It’s one of those things that really is just suggested and not verified by the film, which, I agree, is preferable. Is it his location? Is it a feature of his personality? His reclusiveness? Hmm, actually, I’d kinda rather hear your answer than mine.
Well, I’d get a kick out of having some tea and crumpets in Julian Richings’s mind.
I love it that Julian’s been in every Foresight Features movie I’ve written to date.
Goddam, he is a great actor, a super crazy-ass fucker.
It never hurts having Julian Richings howling out from the derailed train [laughs, almost demonically]. It was sort of cubist in a way… a broken lens that allowed timelines and POVS to scramble the present image. It rhymes with the way thought takes on the characteristic of a place. The mind is a great place to house beings that can choose to ignore their surroundings. I can also put it this way: HOW the film was made resembles what is IN the film. One film has no idea that it’s in the other film, and that’s also how the central struggle is constructed. The aliens inside Julian’s character have little understanding of who or what he is. He’s a room. His mind is a room that they like, for whatever reason, finally.
Were the various POVs employed directly linked to infusing the movie with the creepy-crawly sense of reality which pervades the piece?
Oh yes, for sure. And you know, it was such great fun to work with two directors [Wiele and Chad Archibald], because it forced me to think about two incommensurate directorial styles of storytelling in the same story – the film within the film, or rather the film enveloping the film, the wrap-around, which is the real-time aspect of the story. That it works is certainly the willingness of everyone to entertain big engineering feats and leaps of faith.
Have you always been ‘obsessed’ with alien encounters in the ‘normal’ way many people are, or have you ever, or continue to be, ‘unhealthily’ obsessed with aliens?
To tell you the truth, I am a stone-cold sceptic: I don’t believe in ghosts, aliens, God, reincarnation… anything. I just see all those things, at least in the way they’re talked about, as being too important to the person talking. Oddly, I live in a ‘haunted house’ and hear voices, footsteps, etc. almost daily and I still point a finger of blame at my house rather than in the direction of any paranormal shenanigans. I do, however, believe in some very peculiar sensations I have from time to time that suggest massive differences between what is is and what we think is.
I used to experience hearing voices on the old Windfields estate where Uncle Normie Jewison has his film school, the Canadian Film Centre. When I used to work there alone at odd hours, I could never hear precisely what was being said, but I could tell the sex, the rough age-range and the emotional state of the voices. In your house, can you make out any words in the voices you hear? Or rather, WHAT do you hear?
I hear very natural snippets of conversation. I can’t make out what is said and my impression is that I am not expected to. I also hear, all the time, footsteps upstairs and furniture move. I would say I hear something every day. I have even yelled ‘Quiet!’ without ever compromising my scepticism.
Have you read any of the decent non-fiction on the subject of other worlds, parallel universe, etc.?
I did go through a period, yes, of reading all that. My wife and children are avid believers, so I get exposed to lots of alien hunter-type stuff. I can freak myself out easily but I think that’s explained to a willing suspension of disbelief. I am a classic want-to-believe type so I have all the time in the world for those that do.
Living in Winnipeg for so many decades and now in the middle of fucking nowhere on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, I am always looking at the sky. Do YOU also look to the skies where you live in Stayner?
Well, yes, of course. A friend of mine once claimed to have seen something in the sky up here. For years he thought that if he submerged his head in a bathtub those beings would communicate with him [laughs]. Sort of ‘Close Encounters of The Drownsman’. Not a bad idea… [The Drownsman is a recent Canadian horror thriller about a Freddy/Jason-type who drags cute, young babes into water and drowns them.]
It seems Ejecta adheres to the J. Allen Hynek triple-header of close encounters. How conscious were you of injecting it into the screenplay?
Not very, except that those classifications are now part of how we all imagine an encounter. The idea of contact. This is the threshold all faiths enshrined. The trail that leads to the thing. The indexical sign. The holy relic and the spectral photobomb. I have stood at the bottom of the stairs and yelled `Shut up!’ but even that is too soft to be contact.
Am I just being too egg-headed about this?
[Laughs] Yeah, totally.
Forgive the yellow viscous oospore of my line of questioning. Does Ejecta simply come from a cool idea that morphed into what it became?
Well, yes of course, but I do believe that the process of constructing a story attracts other kinds of stories, pulls at shadow elements, sneaky resonances, that if you tune things right, will reveal themselves. Is it about something? I can only answer that as a member of the audience.
Do you write for yourself? Are YOU the audience?
Oh, I think both. There are elements, especially things I don’t want to fully understand, that I create as a member of the audience, and things for myself, which are illegible, half-lit ideas.
Did the style of cinematic storytelling employed have more to do with exigencies of low-budget production or is it more deeply linked to my aforementioned thoughts on creating a sense of reality?
Well, the two don’t cancel each other out. It’s so very hard, especially with film, to know exactly what you are making. You prep things and talk about things then you push it all in front of a light for a few moments. What is it? If you want it to feel that it is something, that it’s a good idea, then it always helps to have people who can think on their toes, turn on a dime and do it with immediate conviction. This really was a great team to work with.
I’ve been impressed and obsessed with the Foresight Features guys since they started making movies. Here they are in Collingwood, Ontario, all pals, making cool shit in the middle of nowhere. It really reminds me of other pockets of regional, low-budget waves like Romero, Tony Buba and company in Pittsburgh, and certainly all the Winnipeg wackos like myself, Maddin and Paizs, plus, of course the Astron-6 nut bars. You clearly love working with these guys. To what extent is the region of Collingwood/Stayner an influence upon what you write and what those guys make?
These guys are my brothers now. When I had a heart attack a few months ago, I got sprung three days after the surgery and it was THEM, all three of ’em, who drove down to the hospital in Newmarket to get me home. So those relationships now go beyond creative partnerships. But yeah, how we work, where we work, it often reminds me of those eccentric bands of characters who spring up locally and do shit the way they want to. I think of John Waters and his Dreamland gang too. And yes, being here, doing it all here changes everything. It marks everything. It’s in my books too. It was certainly a part of Pontypool. The names, the people, the streets, the buildings; you make shit in your backyard.
Was there a piece of writing or movie that was some kind of epiphany for you in terms of pursuing writing and the kind of stuff you write?
When I was a teenager I thought I was insane, so I sought out things I could read that would help me cultivate the insanity rather than fear it. You know, all the usual stuff a kid might read: Alfred Jarry, Jean Genet, Isidore Ducasse. Surrealists provided the survival guides I needed to shore up my crumbling personality and mind. And from early childhood I was always a horror fan. I used to hide in my room at night, all night, and make those plastic monster models.
Moi aussi, dude. I loved all those Aurora models from the Universal Pictures monster movies of the 30s and 40s.
I couldn’t help but associate horror films with supercharged unnatural events that I was actually experiencing. The airplane glue I used to put the monster models together would make me hallucinate when I woke up in the middle of the night, which I almost always did.
Yeah, like who doesn’t?
You asked if I had any epiphanies? Oh yeah! Dracula would be staring me down from the end of my bed and the Hunchback of Notre Dame would be springing around my room like some deformed toad on crystal meth.
Interview by Greg Klymkiw